Aboard the HMS Walker in the North Atlantic March 17, 1941

On this date in 1941 U-99, skippered by Otto Kretschmer, one of Germany’s most famous U‑boat com­manders, had just fired the last of her tor­pedoes when she was spotted by a British destroyer south­east of Ice­land in the North Atlantic. By this time Kretsch­mer, on his eighth patrol, had sunk 45 ships for about 270,000 tons and cap­tured one for another 2,000 tons. For his feats the 29‑year-old lieu­ten­ant com­mander had earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords and the num­ber-one spot on the Aces of the Deep list. (Adolf Hitler per­sonally in­vited Kretsch­mer to Berlin for the award ceremony and asked him to stay for lunch.)

Kretschmer’s second watch officer, who was on the bridge that night, imme­di­ately ordered the year-old Type VIIB U‑boat to crash dive. But once the boat was beneath the sur­face, it was quickly fixed on by the early sub­marine detec­tion system known as ASDIC (later replaced by sonar). Under attack by destroyers HMS Walker and Vanoc, the U‑99 was driven deep (700 ft/­213 m) and severely damaged by depth charges that smashed air, fuel, and bal­last tanks. Kretsch­mer had no choice but to blow all bal­last tanks and shoot to the sur­face. Both British destroyers opened fire on the U‑99 with 4‑in/­102‑mm guns, though after two minutes neither had found their tar­get. Kretsch­mer ordered his crew to aban­don ship and scuttle the boat, then he dashed off a final radio message to Kriegs­marine Adm. Karl Doenitz at U‑boat head­quarters in Kerneval (out­side Lorient), occupied France, announcing their cap­ture. Three U‑99 crew­men lost their lives while forty men, including Kretschmer, were rescued and became POWs.

The capture of Kretschmer and crew came quickly on the heels of two U‑boat Ritter­kreuz cap­tains lost at sea: Guenther Prien (U‑47) and Joachim Schepke (U‑100), whose naval career was ended by the same two British destroyers that ended Kretschmer’s. Kretsch­mer spent the remainder of the war briefly in Grize­dale Hall, Britain’s main POW camp for German officers (nick­named “U‑boat Hotel” for the number of Kriegs­marine prisoners held there), and then in Canada’s Bow­man­ville POW camp, a former boys school 40 miles east of Toron­to, Ontario. In Septem­ber 1943 Cana­dian mili­tary intel­li­gence and police thwarted a German plan to rescue Kretsch­mer and three other high-ranking naval officers from Bow­man­ville. After the war, Kretsch­mer joined the West German Navy and in May 1965 became the Chief of Staff of the NATO Com­mand, retiring in 1970 with a rank of Flottillen­admiral (rear admiral).

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz and Three of His Most Successful U-Boat Skippers

Grand Admiral Karl DoenitzFamed U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer

Left: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz (1891–1980). At the start of World War II, Doenitz was the senior sub­marine officer in the Kriegs­marine (German Navy). In January 1943 he assumed the office of Com­mander-in-Chief of the Kriegs­marine. After Hitler’s sui­cide on April 30, 1945, Doenitz succeeded to the highest polit­ical office in Nazi Germany, that of Reich Presi­dent (the office of Fuehrer was abolished upon Hitler’s death). Following his arrest by the Allies on May 25, 1945, Doenitz was indicted as a major war crimi­nal at the post­war Nurem­berg Trials and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After his release he settled into retire­ment out­side the port city of Hamburg, writing his memoirs and occa­sionally giving lec­tures, but he made no attempt in the new West Germany to serve his country politically or militarily.

Right: Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer (1912–1998). On his last patrol in March 1941 he sank 10 ships. Following his cap­ture he spent almost seven years as a POW, first in England, then in Canada. After his release Kretsch­mer continued his distinguished service in the Bundesmarine.

Famous U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Guenther PrienFamous U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Joachim Schepke

Left: Lieutenant Commander Guenther Prien (1908–1941). First member of the Kriegs­marine to receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Germany’s highest mili­tary decora­tion at the time of its presenta­tion to Prien. Under Prien’s com­mand U‑47 sank over 30 Allied ships—8 ships for a total of 51,483 shipping tons in June 1940 alone. Prien’s most famous exploit was to sink the British battle­ship HMS Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, Great Britain’s chief naval base in the Orkney Islands far to the north in Scot­land, at a cost to the Royal Navy of 1,234 sea­men. Scapa Flow controlled the entrances to the North Sea.

Right: Lieutenant Commander Joachim Schepke (1912–1941). Schepke was the seventh recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. A con­vinced Nazi, Schepke sank 37 Allied ships and damaged 4 more. After Schepke’s death, Joseph Goebbels’ propa­ganda minis­try held the hand­some skipper (nick­named “Her Majesty’s best-looking officer”) as an example for German youth to follow.

Doenitz’s U-Boats: Their Rise and Demise in the Battle of the Atlantic